Russia is last hope to head off Gulf war

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The Independent Online
Russian diplomacy yesterday appeared to be one hope of averting a fresh round of the Gulf war. President Saddam Hussein said the US had no reason to attack Iraq; Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State, said he had "no excuses left". Patrick Cockburn reports.

"They don't have any national interest or any justification to come thousands of miles to attack us," said President Saddam as Russia made a last-minute effort to avert a fresh bombing offensive to punish the Iraqi leader for not giving access to UN weapons inspectors.

In Madrid President Boris Yeltsin's special envoy, Viktor Posuvalyuk, was to brief the Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, on his talks with the Iraqi leadership. No details of the outcome of their talks was announced.

At the start of the Eid al-Fitr feast at the end of Ramadan President Saddam said that if the attack came: "They will find the sons of our nation carrying out their national duties in a manner that will be a subject of admiration." At this stage it is likely that only a decision by the Iraqi leader to open all his palaces to UN inspectors will avert an air attack.

Russia has criticised Richard Butler, head of the UN inspection team, for saying Iraq had enough biological material to "blow away Tel Aviv." It said he exceeded his brief by suggesting the UN Security Council might extend the no-fly zone or seal the Iraqi port of Basra.

In Madrid Mr Primakov said: "I am not sure we will be able to do anything to prevent it (a military strike)." In November Russia defused a crisis by promising to try to get sanctions lifted by the UN.

In contrast with the Gulf war in 1991, launched to reverse the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, the US is prepared to start its air attack without the backing of the Security Council and supported only by Britain. Mrs Albright, starting her trip to Europe and the Middle East, said: "I am not going anywhere to seek support. I am going to explain our position." The only sign of a break was her statement that Iraq may be looking for a way out of a confrontation with the US. She said the "message is beginning to take hold" in Iraq that it cannot continue to defy the will of the UN.

In the lead-up to the Gulf war President Saddam made concessions - including a last-minute withdrawal from Kuwait - but too late to stop the momentum towards war.

While three of the five permanent members of the Security Council - Russia, France and China - do not support military action, their opposition is likely to be passive.

In Israel, despite Mr Butler's remarks about the destruction of Tel Aviv, there is little apprehension about an Iraqi missile attack with biological weapons, on grounds that Baghdad is unlikely to do so, because its means are limited and Israel's ability to retaliate is immense. The government does not want to create panic by taking defensive measures too early.

If it comes, the US-led air attack is likely to focus on military targets, including sites where biological and chemical weapons may be hidden (such as President Saddam's palaces) and the Republican Guard.